Dominique Wilkins asked if I wanted to be a “celebrity” coach – a term obviously applied loosely – in his charity game. I said, “Will you be on my team?” He said, “No, but I’ll get you somebody good.”
He gave me this backcourt: Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan.
The Omni was almost full on a summer Saturday. I wore an Armani suit. Nobody mistook me for Pat Riley. My assistants were Hugh Durham, then Georgia’s coach, and Evander Holyfield. The latter spent the second half eating popcorn.
Me? I shepherded the GOAT. We – “we,” I say – had the ball late in the first half. I rose from the bench, the way I’d seen the NBA suits do, and said to Michael, “I’ll tell you when.” At 0:04, I yelled, “Go!” He drove to the baseline and hoisted an air ball. I’m thinking, “I’ve just coached the greatest player ever into the worst shot of his life,” whereupon Duane Ferrell grabbed it and scored. Whew.
Halftime in the locker room consisted of John Salley, our nominal center, making light of the windfall offer sheet Jon Koncak received from Detroit. (The Hawks would match.) “If you write any of this,” Salley said, “I’m coming after your Gumby ass.”
“Today I’m not writing,” I said. “Today I’m coaching.” (Yeah!)
The second half was a struggle. “You’ve got to get Michael out,” Magic kept telling me. “He’s killing himself.” He finally agreed to sit. Our lead shrank to a point, 6:42 left. I asked if he was ready to return. His response: “I’m always ready.”
He scored our next 10 points, two coming on a dunk that stopped the game because Magic, then observing the proceedings, ran on the floor to hug him. Spud Webb, former NBA Slam Dunk champ, looked at me and said, “That didn’t even seem real.”
Late in the game, Durham asked, “Are we supposed to let the home team (Dominique’s) win?” Three voices yelled, “No!” – Magic’s, Michael’s and mine. We great ones have our pride.
4. March 17, 1990: Georgia Tech 94, LSU 91.
I had a little invested in this one, too. I’d made LSU my preseason No. 1 team. In grand Bradley tradition, it lost before the ratings ran in our Sunday paper. I’d expected to love those Tigers, who’d added freshman giants Stanley Roberts and Shaquille O’Neal to a nucleus including guard Chris Jackson, who’d averaged 30.2 points as a freshman. They became a classic example of glittering gears that never meshed.
I first saw Tech win a wild December game over Georgia in The Omni, the same Georgia that would claim its only SEC regular-season title. That night marked the coming-out party for Kenny Anderson, the heralded guard from New York. I kidded him all year, saying he’d never be as good as Jackson – who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf – was the year before. Truth was, Anderson was about to become the greatest college guard I’ve ever seen.
Tech got a horrid NCAA seed – No. 4 after winning the ACC tournament in three not-very-close games – but I didn’t care. I picked it to make the Final Four. Round 2 matched LSU, which I’d seen blow a 19-point lead in Athens, against Tech. I wrote that the Jackets would win 94-78. (“Less than a team,” I averred, “LSU is a mess.”)
The game began. Shaq and Roberts swatted a half-dozen Tech shots. LSU led 22-5. On press row in Knoxville, I said to myself, “You’ve got 33 points to turn around.”
But then: Tech steadied. The lead was down to one by halftime. Brian Oliver hit consecutive 3-pointers to put the Jackets ahead. Anderson’s trey and a 45-foot pass to Dennis Scott for another gave them a five-point lead late. Jackson fouled out with 2:42 left. Shaq didn’t touch the ball with LSU down one inside the final 15 seconds. Eight days later, Tech was bound for the Final Four.
Afterward, I told Anderson, magnificent again: “OK, you’re as a good as Chris Jackson.” He laughed. I tended to amuse him.
Unamused was LSU coach Dale Brown, who tapped me on the shoulder during Tech’s postgame press conference. He said someone had faxed my prediction to the LSU hotel and slipped it under his door. “It made my daughter cry,” he said.
In the middle of the summer, I got a call at home. “This is Dale Brown,” the voice said. “I forgive you.”
3. Three games in Pasadena.
Even jaded scribes get gooey over the Rose Bowl: The San Gabriel Mountains! Color! Pageantry! All I can say is that I’ve been there three times, and the winning points came on Vince Young’s fourth-down scramble at 0:19 on Jan. 4, 2006; Jameis Winston’s pass to Kelvin Benjamin at 0:13 on Jan. 6, 2014, and Sony Michel’s walk-off touchdown in the second overtime on New Year’s Day 2018.
Two of those decided national championships; one sent Georgia to the title game. If we count Kyler Murray’s one rush against the Bulldogs, five Heisman winners were involved. Of the college football games I’ve witnessed, these would rank No. 5 (Florida State-Auburn), No. 4 (Georgia-Oklahoma) and No. 1 (Texas-USC).
2. Feb. 5, 2017: Patriots 34, Falcons 28 (overtime).
Not many days pass without me recalling this one. Sometimes I’m asked if I had to rewrite my whole story that night. The answer’s no. My deadline wasn’t overly oppressive, and the game started to swing early enough that I stopped myself. But I had, when it was 28-3, typed this:
“The unthinkable happened Sunday. For once in our lives, an Atlanta team stepped onto the biggest stage and, rather than trip over itself, performed better than we’d dared to dream.”
Ah, well. As the Romans said, “Sic transit Gloria mundi.” As we Atlantans say, “Run the ball, Shanahan.”
1. Oct. 14, 1992: Braves 3, Pirates 2.
The Braves led the NLCS 3-1. They lost Games 5 and 6, the latter a 13-4 thrashing. They trailed 2-0 in Game 7 headed to the bottom of the ninth.
I’d written something of a screed – this squandered series will haunt these wretches the rest of their lives, et cetera – and I sent it as the final half-inning commenced. From my seat in the auxiliary press box in right field, I called the desk. Story’s here, Scott Peacocke said.
At that moment, Terry Pendleton doubled into the corner below me. Over the roar, I yelled into the phone: “Don’t run this if they win!”
(The desk folks would have known that much, but I felt I had to say it.)
I didn’t try to start a Braves-win take. I couldn’t look away from what was happening. When it happened, I called and said, “How long do I have?”
“I need you to beat the game story in,” Scott said.
I concede what I wrote wasn’t poetry. I didn’t have time. None of Take 1 could be salvaged. My only option to recap the momentous half-inning, embellishments interspersed. The ending: “The Braves worked the miracle of all miracles. They won a pennant on the legs of Sid Bream.”
Three things in the main run of the morning paper reflected the outcome – a blurb on A-1, I.J. Rosenberg’s game story and my little effort. Later that harried night, Scott told me: “You rewrote in 20 minutes. Greatest deadline performance I’ve ever seen.”
To be fair, it might have been closer to 25. But I went as fast as I could on the event I knew as it happened was the greatest thing I’d seen. And so it remains.